Tag Archives: balance

From Moldova with ambition: Stela Brinzeanu


I meet Stela Brinzeanu at the corner of Highbury Fields and we find a café nearby. This is the first time I meet and interview a person born in Moldova, a tiny Eastern European country with a population of just three and a half million. It is a former Soviet republic, famous for its wine. Now it is a struggling economy, which depends on its agriculture and migrant workers, earning money abroad to support their parents and children at home. “We are the Skype generation”, explains Stela. “Many children see their parents just once or twice a year, and they rely on the internet.”

Born in a small village, called Mereeseni, 40km from the capital Chișinău, Stela too uses Skype to call her parents, but it’s still a relative novelty. “We used to write long letters to each other, and they took a month to arrive. My parents did not have a computer or internet until 2013.”

Stela’s father shoots clouds for living. His job is to spot thundery clouds and break them up before they may damage the crops – fruit, vegetables and grapes – with hail.  Stela’s mother is a nurse. Growing up in a tiny village, Stela nevertheless benefited from the Soviet school system, which allowed her to enrol into a Chișinău university to study English and Italian. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, opportunities in Moldova were few and far between. Moldovan citizens, annexed from Romania by the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR, were hoping to be reunited with Romania, but in vain. Stela decided to try her luck in London, taking advantage of her Romanian ancestry (which enabled her to work legally in Britain).

London appeared to be everything Mereeseni was not: liberating and full of opportunities. Stela got a job as a waitress, signed up for a computer course, worked to improve her English. Soon she started to interpret into and from Romanian. (Romanian is Moldova’s official and spoken language). Later Stela studied media and TV production at the University of Westminster, still supporting herself with part-time jobs. She’s worked in TV and publishing, before finding her passion for writing.

“In Britain, if you want something, you can get it, regardless of whether you have connections or not. If you keep your head down and work hard, I believe you can achieve whatever you want.”

Stela misses Moldovan vineyards, home-cooked traditional mămăliga (polenta), sarmale (dolma) and friptura (pork stew), but today she calls London her home.

She works three days a week for a charity and devotes the rest of her time to writing. Stela has already written and self-published a book, Bessarabian Nights, about human trafficking from her native Moldova. Now she is working on her second book.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us how lucky we are…

What is your greatest achievement? I’ve made life for myself in London, against all odds.

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Hold on to your dreams, no matter what.

What are you good at? Cleaning! I am a bit OCD about that. I also make mean polenta cakes!

What is your weakness? Impulsiveness.

What would you do, if you knew you would not fail? Study quantum physics.

If you’d like to find out more about Stela, please visit her website www.stelabrinzeanu.com.

A story of Tamsin and her family

One day Tamsin woke up and made up her mind. Tamsin, who grew up in South Africa and England, has always wanted to live in the country and have a dog. It’s just that her dream always seemed out of sight. The stars did not align. The timing was not quite right. Her job was not paying well enough. And, of course, she needed just the right partner to move to the country with. You know, the dog-loving type.

Years went by. London underground in the heat of commute was as dismal as ever. Jobs and men came and went. “What am I waiting for?”, thought Tamsin and searched for Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, a website she’d been browsing for hours at a time. The charity, which on average takes in 13 dogs and 9 cats every day, is an animal rescue centre which aims to rehome unwanted cats and dogs. Battersea Dogs & Cats Home was established in 1860 by Mrs Mary Tealby, who was concerned by the number of animals roaming the streets of London. The Home was then known as “The Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs” and was based in Holloway, North London. It moved to Battersea in 1871. Today they care for over 8,000 pets.

Tamsin 1

This is where Tamsin met and adopted Dexter, a Siberian husky with soft black-and-white fur and clever dark eyes, mischievous under his thick white eye-brows. It is his fourth home. Huskies, explains Tamsin, have a very well developed pack instinct and thrive in company. Soon Tamsin also took Lola, a snow-white husky with unimaginably beautiful white-blue eyes. Lola is a bit naughty but also very affectionate. Sometimes Lola still flinches when someone touches her head.

Tamsin 3Tamsin 2

The trio lives in Surrey in a rented house right near the heath. Tamsin gets up before five and takes her huskies to London for doggy day care.  She picks Dexter and Lola up straight after work and they commute back to the country. Her previously busy social calendar is now empty but there are long walks in the woods, playtime and cuddles. Lola, who used to be skinny, is putting on muscle, thanks to the proper diet and exercise. Dexter is still battling with separation anxiety when Tamsin, ‘the head of the pack’, leaves for work. There is something surreal about Tamsin suddenly having a family but there is nothing wrong with deciding one day to be happy.

Tamsin 4

Interview with Dr. Helen Johnson of Goddess Acumen

Dr. Helen JohnsonI met Helen Johnson at Oxford sixteen years ago. But it’s Doctor Helen Johnson now, which is partly why I’ve asked her for an interview. I was looking forward to speak to her about her academic work and this important milestone which must have taken a lot of time, patience and sacrifice to reach. It turns out that Helen, like any other woman, wears a lot of hats. During our conversation she puts one on, plays with it for a while, swaps for another and piles yet another on top. Women, the unsung masters of juggling and multi-tasking, never cease to amaze me.

Helen has a BA in Philosophy and French from the University of Oxford. She briefly entertained an idea of becoming a barrister before finding herself interested in public policy and justice. After getting a Masters degree in Policy Studies in Edinburgh, where Helen spent a lot of time volunteering with women’s organisations, she met Professor Roger Matthews of the School of Social policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent.

Under Professor Matthews’ supervision, Helen has spent nearly four years on research and her thesis, which aimed at helping women leave prostitution in an effective and sustainable way. Helen explains: “I interviewed thirty women who have either already left sex work or were thinking of leaving it. I realised that while current social policies in the UK address the immediate needs of those women, such as shelter and short-term emotional support, in the longer term, they are on their own.” Helen worked on putting together emotionally intelligent services to help vulnerable women build up self-esteem, confidence and trust. “When you make big changes in your life, it is common to feel stuck after a while when you are struggling to integrate within the new community. It is also very important to feel you are doing something meaningful to help with establishing a new identity.”

Listening to Helen talking about women who went through sexual violence, drug addiction, abuse and homelessness, I cannot help but think that anyone could benefit from looking at changes in an emotionally intelligent way: pursing a career in a new field, retiring from work or recovering from a debilitating illness require more than a leap of faith. I am also interested in understanding one’s identity so I ask Helen about hers.

“I am a freedom fighter, a goddess and a surfer!”

In addition to that, Helen is also an entrepreneur and a holistic practitioner. Her work on the PhD was psychologically draining, and Helen discovered the benefits of yoga, meditation and EFT. EFT stands for Emotional Freedom Technique, a psychological technique which clears negative symptoms through tapping. A problem may be physical (e.g. a headache) or emotional (e.g. feeling nervous before an interview) but EFT is said to be effective in ‘clearing it out’. “My professional and personal lives converged”, explains Helen. Alongside her academic work on emotions of disistence, Helen trained as a neurolinguistic practitioner, earned a certificate in EFT and mastered hypnotherapy.

Helen founded Goddess Acumen, where she helps women find a sense of balance in every aspect of their lives. Using holistic techniques such as EFT, neurolinguistic programming and personal coaching, Helen helps her clients let go of their limiting beliefs and reach their full potential. Goddess Acumen is a playful way of representing female energy through Greek goddesses, described by Jennifer and Roger Woolger in their book The Goddess Within. To illustrate, Demeter stands for motherhood and nurture, Aphrodite symbolises sensuality, Athena is a warrior and also a goddess of intellect and wisdom. (To learn about all six goddesses, click here.) What Goddess Acumen is trying to cultivate is that we feel happiest and perform at our best when our energies are in balance. Inevitably, it is not easy to achieve, but even identifying our weakest links is a start.

“Even the most driven women need to nurture themselves, otherwise they may run out of steam or burn out”, says Helen. I find myself nodding.

To learn more about Goddess Acumen and its holistic services, please visit Helen’s website

Meet Sophie Blondel who swapped Paris for rural Normandy

Summer in Normandy is peculiarly familiar. The sun is capricious and is frequently hiding behind the clouds. The rhythm of life here is punctuated by the sea and its tides, painting fascinating, melancholic landscapes, starting with a fresh canvas every morning. The village of Regnéville-sur-Mer in Lower Normandy is a quiet place with an unlikely grand church and ruins of a medieval castle. Every Friday in the summer the castle is bustling  with people coming to shop and eat at the farmers’ market, listen to a band or watch a play. I came to Regnéville-sur-Mer to visit my friend and former colleague Sophie Blondel.

Castle    Market

Sophie worked as a Chief Financial Controller in a large media company in Paris. Her work was frighteningly complicated and demanded a lot of time and responsibility.  Sophie was very good at it, despite its pressures. She also found time for tango and swimming, movies and friends, making the most of what Paris has to offer for about 20 years. At the same time, Sophie has been studying shiatsu.  In Japanese, “shiatsu”  means “finger pressure” . It is a holistic physical therapy, which works to strengthen the body’s natural ability to heal itself. It is based on  manipulating body energy, ki, as it flows through a network of body  meridians.  After 4 years of study and a trip to Japan, Sophie earned a professional certificate from La Voie Shiatsu, a school accredited by the French Federation of Traditional Shiatsu.  Earlier this year she quit her high-powered finance job in Paris to move to rural Normandy and practise shiatsu.

I remember our conversations at an industrial-size Nespresso machine in Paris. We were both stressed, hyper-caffeinated, stiff from spending too much time sitting in the office and working through countless spreadsheets. We took pride in our work and our ability to handle pressure, we were loyal and professional, but inwardly thoughts were beginning to creep in: “Is this really what I want to do?”

In Sophie’s beautiful garden in Normandy I asked her what prompted her to consider career change. “It’s my values that have changed. I’m proud of what I have achieved in Paris and I loved living there but increasingly I’ve become disenchanted with my life and I wanted to change it.” Sophie moved to Normandy because this is where she had grown up. Her parents still live here. “I came here often, I used it as a retreat to help me relax and re-balance my energy. I have come to live here because I wanted to change my lifestyle, not just my career.”

Sophie Blondel

Just a few months after moving to Normandy, Sophie looks completely different. I cannot quite put my finger on it, but she radiates happiness. We make dinner from the fresh produce we’d bought at the market, we go to the beach, we take long walks and meditate. We realise we have a lot in common, now that the professional masks are off.

Sophie tells me about her new work. She has regular clients in the nearby Granville and is now looking for permanent studio space. Over the summer she has also been  offering her services at a local caravan camping site. One morning while I was writing a blog, Sophie went to work. She came back with triumphant “I had four clients today!” Many people would look at Sophie and conclude that she is just another professional who ‘down-shifted’ once she’d made her money. I see a woman who isn’t afraid to challenge herself, to take a leap of faith and embrace fear. In her previous role, her job was to take account of other people’s initiatives and performance; now she has to be bold and creative, like any entrepreneur, learn about marketing, be her own boss.  “I’ll give myself a year or two, and then we’ll see.”

There’s no guarantee your new idea will be a success, but you can give it a shot and try your very best.

What is your greatest achievement? Changing my life

What are you good at? Let me think… I am good at seeing the beauty in things.

What is your weakness? Lack on self-confidence…

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? Don’t chase someone else’s dreams.

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? I would like to travel the world and learn about healing practices of different cultures.

Sophie practises shiatsu in Granville – for details, please visit her website.

Nancy Honey and her 100 Leading Ladies

Nancy HoneyLast year the Somerset House hosted a fabulous exhibition 100 Leading Ladies, a project which took Nancy Honey three years to accomplish. Nancy may have been working towards that project all her life. What she has been able to achieve is awe-inspiring. Over three cups of tea, Nancy told me her story.

Nancy Honey was born in the US and came to Britain in 1970s. She studied Fine Art, Graphic Design and Photography both in the US and in the UK. She has been photographing for more than 30 years and started exhibiting her work in 1984. Alongside art, corporate and advertising projects, Nancy has published four monographs: Woman to Woman, Entering the Masquerade, Poodle Parlour and, most recently, 100 Leading Ladies.

100 Leading Ladies… I have always been fascinated with what successful, high powered women had achieved throughout their careers. How did they manage to juggle professional and family responsibilities? I have deliberately chosen women over the age of 55 because of their accomplishments, but also because senior women are very much under-represented in the media. I wanted to change that by making portraits and hearing the views of older women. I wanted to include the voice of the younger generation as well, so I commissioned former The Times journalist Hattie Garlick to interview my subjects.

When I started my research for the project, I wanted to approach women I personally admired, for example, Barbara Hulanicki OBE, fashion designer and founder of the iconic clothes store Biba. As the project developed, it was incredible to discover so many women I have not even come across before in art and science, business and public service. I asked them where they went for inspiration, to think or just to relax. Such a setting reveals a lot more about a person than a photo studio. Some of my heroines chose the comforts of their own homes, others chose professional settings, providing fascinating backgrounds to my portraits.

Brave new world…  The research and the photography took me about two years. I funded it myself, selling my house and moving into a smaller flat in the process. The next step was to get funding for the exhibition: in addition to the portraits, I also wanted to put together a beautiful book, featuring the photographs and the interviews. I had no fundraising experience, no corporate network to access, so I had no idea where to start. I went to the Westminster Reference Library, where a helpful librarian gave me a UK Guide to Company Giving. Gradually I learned how the company funding worked; I researched then approached many, many companies that I thought were a good fit with the project. I hired an intern and an assistant to help me. I also did a huge amount of networking.  It took us a year to put together the required funding. Women push themselves, if they really want something.

Thirteen of Nancy’s portraits were purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 2013 and displayed in a small group exhibition of recent acquisitions. The complete work was shown at Somerset House in 2014. Her accomplishment lives in a stunning, timeless book, featuring photos and interviews, which is available for purchase online.

What have you learned from the women you’ve met? They were all incredibly passionate about their work. It is also true that many women had to make sacrifices to achieve what they have.

What would you advise your 15-year-old self? I would advise her to try to look for a role model or a mentor. Although I had loving parents, there was no one in my life to look at who was the kind of woman I wanted to be.

What are you good at? I am good at organisation, managing complicated problems and taking on challenges. I love research.

What is your greatest achievement? My two children.

If you can do anything, knowing that you would not fail, what would you do? At this point, I would build my own house.

Who inspires you? There are too many people to mention. I admire so many artists in so many fields, both young, old, alive or dead. There is so much to find out about and to be in awe of.

To find out more about Nancy’s work, please visit her website www.nancyhoney.com and www.100leadingladies.com

Alla Ouvarova, co-founder of Two Chicks, mother and athlete

I meet Alla Ouvarova for lunch in Soho’s Café Boheme. As you would expect from a healthy diet evangelist, Alla, co-founder of the liquid egg white brand Two Chicks, looks lean and fit. She tells me about her morning run (14 miles) before the conversation turns to business. In the afternoon Alla and her business partner Anna Richey have a board meeting to discuss the launch of a new product, Chirps, egg white crisps. As a seasoned entrepreneur who launched  Two Chicks in 2006, Alla talks new product launch strategy, marketing and PR with such confidence that it would be worth packaging and pitching that to Selfridges as well.

In search of a better life… In 1991, when I was 10, my family moved to London from St. Petersburg in Russia. My father was a former professional player who started teaching tennis in Regent’s Park. He worked every day of the week, never taking time off, to support us and build a better life for us in Britain.

I really liked maths… It is fair to say that Russian, Eastern European and Asian students always choose to study Economics, Business, Engineering, rather than arts. I studied Economics at University College London and thought about a career in banking, when my friend Anna came up with an idea and offered me to start a business together.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel… Anna spent three months in LA and got hooked on egg-white omelettes. Egg white is fat free, cholesterol free, low in carbs and is an excellent source of protein. Many baking treats, such as meringues and macaroons, require separation of egg whites from egg yolks, yet back in 2006 you could not buy a carton of egg whites at a supermarket. Anna’s idea was simple: package free-range egg white into an easy-pour carton and market it to health-conscious consumers and bakers. Two Chicks was born.

Two Chicks

Anna Richey (left) and Alla Ouvarova (right)

On friendship and entrepreneurship… It is absolutely brilliant to work with your best friend! At the outset we recognised that we have different strengths, so we divided work accordingly.  When we started, I was responsible for finance and logistics, and Anna took on sales and marketing. As our business grows, we are both responsible for the overall strategy, so it helps to bounce ideas off each other and discuss matters with a person you trust.

Passion or spotting the gap in the market? The whole premise of Two Chicks was about the gap we have spotted in the market, but both Anna and I have always been interested in health and nutrition, which makes it a natural business area to be working in. I love sport, I play tennis, I run and I love racing. I need to make sure I eat enough protein, so both the liquid egg white I use for protein shakes and the egg white snacks (Chirps) are very much part of my lifestyle.

2014 Natwest everywoman National Awards.      Alla Tough Mudder

On balance and being a mother…  Keeping things in balance is difficult, as I am always running from one thing to another. I try to exercise 4-5 times a week and also find as much time as possible for my son Zac, who is six. Running my own business means I can pick Zac from school myself on occasion, then do some more work when he is asleep. I teach him tennis and golf, we go skiing together – I am lucky that he is passionate about sport as much as I am!

On Ladies Who Impress and role models… I really enjoyed listening to Susan Ma’s story at the November 2014 event. Perhaps it’s because I can relate to her story well, having immigrated to Britain myself and being an entrepreneur. To be honest, all the stories shared on the Ladies Who Impress website are fascinating: what an inspiration to read about women taking on challenges and achieving something great.

Other than that, Margaret Thatcher was a particularly strong role model for me and many other women, who grew up in Russia.

 Favourite quote… “Well behaved women seldom make history.” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Meet investigative psychologist and sky diver Tamar van Dijk

IMG_8452I am in Tayrona National Park, making my way back from the Lost City, ruins of an ancient settlement, discovered in Colombia in 1976. I am with a group of travellers from Colombia, the US, Canada and Europe. A big lad in his early twenties is attempting to cross the river using a pulley rope bridge. He is huffing and puffing, making the show of it, but never quite leaving the bank. Most of us have already crossed the river barefoot, which was mildly inconvenient but relatively fuss-free. A fit young woman next to me says to no one in particular: “He is just waiting for someone to tell him not to do it.” Sure enough a moment later we hear “Oi, leave it, they probably need the pulley this side of the river” and the grateful backpacker runs down to the stream, his bravado gone, his relief barely hidden.

Perhaps it does not take an overqualified psychologist to read a man’s mind but Tamara was spot on, so forgive me the side story. Please meet Tamar van Dijk (not her real name), a 28-year-old Dutch investigative psychologist who helps the police profile murderers and solve crimes.

Tamar grew up and lives in Haarlem in the Netherlands. “It is a very charming medieval city close to gorgeous beaches and sand dunes – it’s nothing like Harlem in New York!” After finishing school, she decided to become a cook and got a job in a restaurant. Tamar spent about six years cooking in some high-end restaurants in Haarlem, and at the same time she enrolled to study first economics, then psychology “to keep the brain cogs in motion.”

“I got a Masters degree in Psychology as well as a Masters degree in Criminology, covering law, psychology and sociology. At that point I realised I was more interested in criminal psychology and a career with a greater sense of purpose, so I stopped cooking and applied for a job as an investigative psychologist.” 200 other graduates applied. Tamar got in.

She took an additional course in investigative psychology at Utrecht, and was also sent to study Violent Criminal Behaviour with the FBI Academy in the US. “I had a plenty of theoretical knowledge straight after university but lacked practical experience. The FBI course was very helpful, although some of their methods seemed obsolete in comparison with what I had studied in the Netherlands!” I ought to mention that Tamar has decided to get a Law degree as well and is now half-way through the curriculum.

So what does an investigate psychologist do?

“I study files, help to investigate cases the detectives have trouble with. The work varies: murder, threat, stalking, sex offences etc. I often assist criminal interrogations, watching interviews with a psychotic suspect on a murder case. I analyse allegations of sexual offences,  advising criminal prosecutors on such aspects as false memories, false denials or false confessions. I am also one of the three psychologists on a team that works on stalking cases against public figures, like the Dutch royal family or politicians. They get threat letters, and we read and analyse them.  In many cases the writers are delusional, and we assist in getting them the right medical care. Finally, I advise local police on their efforts to prevent murder or violence from happening. For me it is the most rewarding field of work.”

Tamar enjoys a mental challenge, and having both a challenge and a sense of purpose are the most important aspects of her life.

Speaking of challenges, Tamar is a bit of an adrenaline junkie. She has always been active and adores being outdoors, but her idea of fun is perhaps of a kind some of us would refer to as ‘insane’. “Since I spend a lot of my time sitting in an office, after work I go out to race my motorbike or rock climbing.” Tamar spends her weekends mountain biking, kayaking, kitesurfing, wild camping or skydiving.

Tamar racing on her motorcycle

In early 2014 Tamar was on holiday in South Africa where she went sky diving in tandem. She loved it, and she also wondered how it would feel to jump solo… Back in Haarlem she saved up some money to start a sky diving course in the summer. Tamar got her sky diving license in August after theory lessons and seven qualifying jumps.  At the 20th jump she broke her foot at landing, but naturally she cannot wait for the summer season to resume diving.

Tamar 1Tamar 2   Tamar skydiving

“Flying in the air is the best feeling ever. Every morning I wake up hoping I have been transformed into a bird. Sadly, that hasn’t happened so far.”

Tamar learning to fly a plane

In case you are wondering, extreme sports do not take up all of Tamar’s time. “I also play saxophone (in a tango orchestra), read about astronomy, philosophy and neuroscience, I attend lectures, go to concerts, and I love spending time with friends and family.” Incidentally, Tamar has a twin brother, who is her opposite. “He prefers staying within his comfort zone…”

Tamar’s plans for the year is to go travelling on her bike. She is planning to cycle all the way to South East Asia, wild camping along the way. “I’d like to meet new people, perhaps help them out and, at the very least, make them smile.”

Meeting Tamar reminded me once again what Ladies Who Impress project is all about: to celebrate insanely impressive women and inspire all of us to aim higher and to challenge ourselves.

Interview with travel writer Sophie Campbell

Summer… Holidays… Travels… Did you ever dream of being a travel writer? In a candid, honest and funny interview travel writer and Blue Badge London guide Sophie Campbell reveals what it is really like to be a freelance journalist. Sophie’s story is a tale of persistence, creation of your own luck and an example of a successful portfolio career.

My favourite quote? “Criticise yourself, but not to a point it is becoming destructive.”

I interviewed Sophie Campbell in April 2014 at the Ladies Who Impress celebration, Confidence.

If you’d like to enquire about Sophie’s legendary tours of London, have a look at Love-London.com.

Interview with Kimberley Wilson of Great British Bake Off

I interviewed Kimberley Wilson in April 2014 at the Ladies Who Impress celebration, Confidence. The podcast interview reveals how Kimberley fell in love with baking, what fuels her passion and  the importance of balance. Kimberley talks about her work as a council psychologist and plans for the future.

Finally, Kimberley shares her ideas on how to boost confidence. My favourite quote is towards the end – a brilliant piece of advice on how to keep things in perspective…